By: Alicia Chavy, Columnist
Photo Credit: Business Insider
In the past five years, Brazil’s security status quo has worsened and will continue to deteriorate if the Brazilian government does not take drastic measures to tackle social inequality and reform its security sector. In 2015, 58,383 people were killed in Brazil due to a surge in police strikes, street crime, violent protests, and armed conflict between Brazilian security forces and organized criminal organizations.[i] To combat soaring instability and violence, the Brazilian government has been deploying its national security forces and employing indiscriminate, and often lethal, counterinsurgency tactics. Yet, the armed forces’ reactionary policies and tunnel vision on law and order has only deepened Brazil’s national security crisis. Rampant corruption in the government and security forces, failed security sector and judicial reforms, and endemic economic and social instability have undermined the government’s ability to effectively provide security. It is imperative that the government revise its security response and use of counterinsurgency tactics to better match and combat the different types of violence and instability present in the country.
Brazil’s Domestic Instability
One year after the Olympics, “A Cidade Marvilhosa” has been plagued by a rise in violence: cars and public buses are burning, robberies and police strikes have increased, and shootings occur almost daily, especially in the favelas, where about a quarter of Rio de Janeiro’s six million residents live in conditions of aggravated poverty.[ii][iii] On September 9, 2017, one million Brazilian federal policemen stormed Rocinha, the largest favela in Rio de Janeiro, with the aim of ending cartel activities and rivalries that often result in violence. Police and drug gangs fought over the territory for six days, leaving 75,000 terrified residents trapped between them. After the police failed to neutralize the heavily armed drug gangs, the government sent 950 soldiers to the heart of Rocinha by air and on foot, rendering the situation urban guerilla warfare.[iv] On September 29, the army reportedly left Rocinha once drug trafficker Rogerio Avelino da Silva, aka Rogerio 157, fled the scene and took refuge in another favela in the city. Despite the army’s use of counterinsurgency tactics and Defense Minister Raul Jungmann’s claim that the situation had stabilized, the police and army did not eliminate the gang threat in Rocinha,[v] and were not able to catch Rogerio 157. Organized criminal groups involved in the transnational drug trade, arms trafficking, robbery, extortion, and kidnapping continue to control favelas in Rio de Janeiro, and a vacuum of instability and violence persists in cities across Brazil. This is not an isolated event; in 2013, Brazilians engaged in both peaceful and violent protests condemning the pervasive corruption, insecurity, and social inequality the Brazilian government has failed to tackle. Brazilian federal police responded with excessive force, using rubber bullets, tear gas, and pepper spray indiscriminately and arbitrarily detaining protestors.[vi]
Along with increased civilian unrest, street crime rates, such as kidnappings and robberies, have soared. An August 2016 New York Times report stated that there had been nearly 11,000 street robberies in June 2016, an 81 percent increase over the same month the prior year.[vii] According to the independent Brazilian Forum for Public Security, Brazil recorded 279,592 violent deaths between 2011 and 2015.[viii] It also indicated that, since 2011, more drugs and small arms have been in circulation throughout urban areas, and urban police officers are increasingly caught up in armed struggles with drug cartels. The police force is often a source of violence itself because of its involvement in illegal activities and its willingness to resort to lethal force.[ix] Security forces operate with impunity in Brazil, and their warlike mentality makes this lack of accountability dangerous.[x] In 2015, the police were responsible for 3,345 killings across Brazil,[xi] and according to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch reports, police killings in Rio de Janeiro accounted for 20 percent of Rio de Janeiro’s homicide rate in 2015.[xii]
Government Response and Reforms
In 2008, Rio de Janeiro created militarized Police Pacification Units (PCU), which were responsible for combating drug gangs in favelas. Subsequently, PCU forces seized control of Rocinha through counterinsurgency tactics, deploying tanks, helicopters, and 3,000 heavily armed police to assert state authority.[xiii] The program’s success relies on effective and sustained coordination between the police and state and municipal governments, as well as social work and Rocinha residents’ perception of the legitimacy of the government of Rio de Janeiro. In 2016, the government also introduced new surveillance and emergency management technologies, and established Integrated Command and Control Centers to allow distinct security institutions to work together.
However, the potential gains from the aforementioned reforms have not materialized. The army and police forces’ reactionary and repressive responses have led to more human rights abuses and violent deaths, especially in low-income communities, and have failed to improve public security. Atila Roque, the executive director of Amnesty International in Brazil, claimed that the PCU program was “riddled with [human rights] abuse, and exacerbated tensions between the police and residents.”[xiv] The “hearts and minds” prong of the strategy was not implemented alongside the intensive police crackdowns; PCUs struggle to maintain stability in Rocinha, and outbreaks of violence are happening more frequently.[xv] In its bid for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, the Brazilian government promised its citizens and the world that it would implement major security sector reforms, but has failed to do so.
Brazilian policymakers have far too frequently deployed military and federal police forces to re-establish law and order, including for Carnaval celebrations, Pope Francis’s 2013 visit, and the Zika virus outbreak. The military has also frequently occupied Rio de Janeiro’s slums. Rio’s municipal government ordered 23,000 soldiers to assist the Rio de Janeiro police during the 2016 Olympics in “standing sentinel at busy intersections […] with their weapons aimed menacingly at the sidewalk.”[xvi] But this show of force did not eliminate crime, and many street crimes go unreported by victims who have little trust in the police.[xvii] In addition, underpayment of police officers has led to police strikes, engendering chaos in some cities. For example, in February 2017, Brazil’s South-Eastern state of Espirito Santo experienced anarchy for six days due to a police strike, and the police union reported 101 homicides, more than six times the state’s 2016 average daily rate. In response, the state issued a decree on February 8, authorizing the transfer of security duties to the Brazilian army, and 1,200 soldiers and federal policemen were deployed there.[xviii]
Brazil’s spike in violence has been directly caused by pervasive discrimination and abject poverty; rampant corruption; and deepened inequality in the political, economic, judicial, and security apparatuses.[xix] The shortcomings of past security reforms and the limitations of counterinsurgency tactics in favelas in Brazil’s major cities paint a devastating picture of the future of Brazilian stability. The security status quo will not change in Brazil until decisionmakers take drastic measures to tackle social and judicial inequality, and focus on providing basic education, security, and health services to remove incentives towards violence. An essential first step is the demilitarization and retraining of police forces, so that they can respond more appropriately to the different types of violence and crime ravaging the country.
[i] Mimi Yagoub, “Brazil Police Killed At Least 3,300 Civilians in 2015,” Insight Crime, November 1, 2016. http://www.insightcrime.org/news-briefs/brazil-police-killed-at-least-3300-civilians-in-2015.
[ii] “Rio: l’armée quitte une favela après une semaine,” Le Figaro, September 29, 2017. http://www.lefigaro.fr/flash-actu/2017/09/29/97001-20170929FILWWW00310-l-armee-quitte-une-favela-de-rio-apres-une-semaine.php.
[iii] “Brazil Security Forces Patrol in Rio Amid Surge of Violence,” US News, May 15, 2017. https://www.usnews.com/news/world/articles/2017-05-15/brazil-security-forces-patrol-in-rio-amid-surge-of-violence.
[iv] “Rio: guerre dans la favela,” France TV Info, September 23, 2017. http://www.francetvinfo.fr/economie/emploi/metiers/armee-et-securite/rio-guerre-dans-la-favela_2386209.html.
[v] “Rio: l’armée quitte une favela après une semaine,” Le Figaro, September 29, 2017. http://www.lefigaro.fr/flash-actu/2017/09/29/97001-20170929FILWWW00310-l-armee-quitte-une-favela-de-rio-apres-une-semaine.php.
[vi] Julia Carneiro, “Brazil security forces criticised over policing methods,”BBC, July 23, 2013. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-23418063.
[vii] Anna Jean Kaiser and Andrew Jacobs, “Security Force of 85,000 Fills Rio, Unsettling Rights Activists,” The New York Times, August 8, 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/08/world/americas/rio-olympics-crime.html.
[viii] “Brazil’s Police Strike Crisis Highlights Security Reform Failures,” World Politics Review, March 7, 2017. https://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/trend-lines/21451/brazil-s-police-strike-crisis-highlights-security-reform-failures.
[ix] Anna Jean Kaiser and Andrew Jacobs, “Security Force of 85,000 Fills Rio, Unsettling Rights Activists,” The New York Times, August 8, 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/08/world/americas/rio-olympics-crime.html.
[x] “Brazil’s Police Strike Crisis Highlights Security Reform Failures,” World Politics Review, March 7, 2017. https://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/trend-lines/21451/brazil-s-police-strike-crisis-highlights-security-reform-failures.
[xi] Mimi Yagoub, “Brazil Police Killed At Least 3,300 Civilians in 2015,” Insight Crime, November 1, 2016. http://www.insightcrime.org/news-briefs/brazil-police-killed-at-least-3300-civilians-in-2015.
[xii] Anna Jean Kaiser and Andrew Jacobs, “Security Force of 85,000 Fills Rio, Unsettling Rights Activists,” The New York Times, August 8, 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/08/world/americas/rio-olympics-crime.html.
[xiii]Chris Arsenault, “Counter-insurgency “improves” Brazil’s slums”, Aljazeera, January 4 2012, http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2011/12/201112281252381901.html.
[xiv] Anna Jean Kaiser and Andrew Jacobs, “Security Force of 85,000 Fills Rio, Unsettling Rights Activists,” The New York Times, August 8, 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/08/world/americas/rio-olympics-crime.html.
[xv] “Brazil army deploys in Rio slum as drug-related violence worsens,” Reuters, September 22, 2017. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-brazil-violence/brazil-army-deploys-in-rio-slum-as-drug-related-violence-worsens-idUSKCN1BX2Z9.
[xviii] “Brazil army takes over state’s security as 100 killed amid police strike,” The Guardian, February 9, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/feb/09/brazil-police-strike-deaths-espirito-santo-vitoria.
[xix] “Brazil’s Police Strike Crisis Highlights Security Reform Failures,” World Politics Review, March 7, 2017. https://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/trend-lines/21451/brazil-s-police-strike-crisis-highlights-security-reform-failures.